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Editorial Introduction: Risk, Culture and Social Theory in Comparative Perspective

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This special issue brings together contributions from nine scholars who have been working at the frontiers of the comparative study of risk. Most of the papers that follow use a cross-national approach to investigate public attitudes to risk in a broad range of settings including Germany, Sweden, Denmark, England, and the United States. Two of the authors represented here adopt more creative interpretations for carrying out comparative studies that reach considerably beyond conventional methodologies of country-level contrasts. One contributor highlights the temporal dimensions of novel forms of environmental uncertainty and a second selection, grounded in the sociology of language, compares the different objectives that lay people seek to satisfy when they speak about risk. In this sense, this issue provides a farrago of perspectives on the most befitting way to exploit the utility of comparative methodologies. Political scientists interested in the effects of different regulatory regimes and systems of governance have been responsible for most comparative risk research conducted to date. The papers in this issue depart from this tradition and instead draw on insights derived from social theory. There has been over the past decade a dramatic upswelling of interest in risk among theoretically-inclined sociologists and several writers have suggested that a pervasive sense of anxiety is a central feature of the current phase of modernity (e.g., Giddens, 1990; Beck, 1992). This collection represents an initial attempt to situate these recondite impressions in distinct contexts and to scrutinise them from a variety of comparative perspectives.
Environmental Values 8 (1999): 127–134
© 1999 The White Horse Press, Cambridge, UK.
Editorial Introduction: Risk, Culture and Social Theory
in Comparative Perspective
MAURIE J. COHEN
Department of Geography and Environmental Studies Program
Binghamton University
Binghamton, NY 13902, USA
and
Oxford Centre for the Environment, Ethics & Society
Mansfield College
Oxford OX1 3TF, UK
Writing in 1986, it was possible for Sheila Jasanoff to assert that
[S]urprisingly little comparative research has been done on the way different societies
think about and seek to control [risks]. The dearth of cross-national research can be
attributed, in part, to the provincialism of traditional policy analysis. Such studies tend
to regard risk management decisions as the product of distinctively national legal and
administrative processes and are skeptical about the possibility that lessons learned
within one policy system can be transferred to another (Jasanoff, 1986).
While we can debate the extent to which countries have learned from one
another’s experiences assessing and regulating risk, the past decade has seen no
shortage of attention devoted to the comparative study of environmental uncer-
tainty. In the years since Jasanoff’s appraisal, a steady stream of publications has
revealed that cross-national examination can indeed provide beneficial insights
into how different societies perceive and respond to the risks emanating from
science and technology (Vogel, 1986; Kasperson and Kasperson, 1987; Joppke,
1993; see also Nelkin, 1980; Lundqvist, 1980). In particular, comparative
investigations illuminate the socially constructed qualities of risk and the way in
which culture mediates understanding. Let us take a couple of rather trivial
examples to illustrate how risk is a contingent phenomenon.
Across much of the United States during the past several years parents have
been lobbying their local councils to pass ordinances requiring school-age
children to don protective helmets when riding their bicycles on lightly traf-
ficked suburban sidestreets. Though they demonstrate such vigilance for their
children’s neighbourhood cycling excursions, many of these same Americans
apparently evince little concern for the genetically-modified ingredients that are
now becoming staples of processed food. By way of contrast, Dutch youngsters
MAURIE J. COHEN
128
without any headgear careen around on the handlebars of rickety three-speed
bicycles. Their parents, however, react angrily to reports of biotechnologically
engineered soyabeans and express support for activists who block the importa-
tion of such products.
While there may be cross-national disparity in the number of children injured
from bicycle accidents, it is doubtful that American or Dutch parents are even
dimly aware of such statistics or incorporate such information into their risk
assessments. Furthermore, we would be on dangerous terrain to presume that
Americans’ emotional attachment motivates them to ensure their progeny’s
safety on the roadways but not at the family dinner table. We can more readily
attribute such attitudinal and behavioural variations to cultural disparities
between the two countries and could site examples from virtually any public
policy area concerned with health or the environment to illustrate these differ-
ences.
This special issue brings together contributions from nine scholars who have
been working at the frontiers of the comparative study of risk. Most of the papers
that follow use a cross-national approach to investigate public attitudes to risk
in a broad range of settings including Germany, Sweden, Denmark, England, and
the United States. Two of the authors represented here adopt more creative
interpretations for carrying out comparative studies that reach considerably
beyond conventional methodologies of country-level contrasts. One contributor
highlights the temporal dimensions of novel forms of environmental uncertainty
and a second selection, grounded in the sociology of language, compares the
different objectives that lay people seek to satisfy when they speak about risk.
In this sense, this issue provides a farrago of perspectives on the most befitting
way to exploit the utility of comparative methodologies.
Political scientists interested in the effects of different regulatory regimes
and systems of governance have been responsible for most comparative risk
research conducted to date. The papers in this issue depart from this tradition and
instead draw on insights derived from social theory. There has been over the past
decade a dramatic upswelling of interest in risk among theoretically-inclined
sociologists and several writers have suggested that a pervasive sense of anxiety
is a central feature of the current phase of modernity (e.g., Giddens, 1990; Beck,
1992). This collection represents an initial attempt to situate these recondite
impressions in distinct contexts and to scrutinise them from a variety of
comparative perspectives.
Sheila Jasanoff, in this issue’s initial contribution entitled ‘Songlines of
Risk’, identifies three different epistemological approaches for the analysis and
management of risk. The first, and by far the most widespread, school of thought
views risk in rational, scientific terms as a statistically determinable measure of
harm. Seen in such a positivistic light, the study of risk is a narrowly circum-
scribed area of expertise most appropriately pursued by individuals with ad-
vanced training in disciplines such as toxicology, epidemiology, and ecology. A
EDITORIAL INTRODUCTION
129
second perspective grounds its understanding in the sociology of science and
suggests that risk is not amenable to scientistic techniques; rather we need to
interpret risk as a cultural construct. These two modes of thought have served as
the dual focal points for extensive research and both have inspired no shortage
of criticism. Rather than revisit these well-worn paths, Jasanoff uses this
opportunity to develop a third, more innovative perspective that treats risk as a
specialised language and set of practices for managing uncertainty and maintain-
ing existing power relations.
One way of exploring how we use uncertainty for such purposes is to
comparatively examine the way in which different countries handle risk issues.
This approach is necessary because, as Jasanoff states, ‘there is a political
dimension to ways of thinking about uncertainty ... [and] risk concepts are not
simply neutral descriptions of nature’ (italics in original). These differences
become especially salient in cases involving transboundary environmental
dilemmas such as climate change and acid rain that generate political responses
designed to privilege science and to establish highly centralised organisations
geared toward smoothing out conflicting viewpoints. Through descriptions of a
diverse array of evocative images, ranging from Vincent Van Gogh’s reflections
upon his own masterpieces to historian Paul Fussell’s vivid accounts of the
horrors and ironies of World War II, Jasanoff gives us reason to be suspicious of
proposals to create autocratic governmental systems for the regulation of risk.
She asks if we really want to manage uncertainty with bureaucratic institutions,
operating with military precision, or whether the facilitation of more deliberative
decisionmaking might not be a more advisable course.
This issue’s second paper by Maurie Cohen entitled ‘Science and Society in
Historical Perspective’ also takes the national contextualisation of global envi-
ronmental problems as its point of departure. Rather than focus on the implica-
tions of this set of ecological concerns for policymaking, he raises some
cautionary questions about the efficacy of risk as a core concept for environmen-
tal social theory. In particular, it has recently become common in some circles
– largely as an outgrowth of the popularity of Ulrich Beck’s risk society thesis
– to speak of all advanced societies as being transfixed by anxiety. Cohen argues
that such observations arise from a distinctly German orientation regarding
modernisation.
This contribution develops the notion of scientific mentalité and uses social
survey data regarding public attitudes toward science and technology to demon-
strate that European countries display striking differences in their views toward
rational knowledge. This evidence indicates that the whole of European society
does not apprehend technical expertise as an unambiguous source of human
enhancement, but rather there are discernible cross-national patterns of varia-
tion. To explain this disparity Cohen provides us with a comparative examina-
tion of how England and Germany culturally absorbed science during the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He focuses in particular on the challenges
MAURIE J. COHEN
130
scientific knowledge faced from competing epistemologies and the ways in
which educational institutions assimilated these new social ideas. This analysis
reveals that the uneasiness influencing some German social theorists over the
past decade has deep roots in the country’s social history, and we should be
sceptical about propositions suggesting that this condition is a more universal
phenomenon of the current age.
Jost Halfmann begins his paper entitled ‘Community and Life Chances’ with
a discussion of the Enlightenment notion of progress and argues that changing
public perceptions about the warrant of this ideal are the fundamental causes of
the apprehension that many observers see as an essential element of contempo-
rary life. He contends that ‘the notion of technological progress is no longer
associated primarily with the betterment of humankind, but is now often
connected to dread and catastrophes’. Halfmann draws on Mary Douglas and
Aaron Wildavsky’s cultural theory of risk, specifically their distinction between
centre and periphery, to distinguish prototypical European and American
organisational forms of activism. Because most European countries vest public
authority in the state, the periphery in these nations must press its claims in the
political sphere. In contrast, the weakness of the American state has made it
necessary for social movements in the United States to direct their agenda toward
civil society.
Invoking Germany as a paradigmatic state-centred European country,
Halfmann demonstrates how this nation’s political structures shaped social
movement activities around civilian nuclear power during the 1970s and 1980s
in ways that were markedly distinct from those in the United States. Though
nuclear energy was the ostensible issue around which social movements formed
in the two countries, and both German and American activists pursued similar
utopian ideals, these structural differences dictated their respective campaigning
strategies. Opponents of nuclear energy in Germany had ‘no other choice but to
directly confront the state’, and such efforts eventually led to the creation of the
Green Party, the standard bearer of European Green politics. Their American
counterparts were less interested in changing the machinery of government or
undermining the legitimacy of the state and instead committed themselves to
‘building a peaceful and egalitarian community’. Despite these dissimilarities,
both the German and American anti-nuclear movements have enjoyed consid-
erable success, and it is at least partly the result of their efforts that the two nations
have not been able to expand civilian nuclear capacity since the mid-1980s.
Andrew Jamison and Erik Baark take up some of the same historical themes
as the two previous papers. Their contribution, entitled ‘National Shades of
Green’, however redirects our attention more pointedly to the realm of science
and technology and to how we can use these institutionalised forms of knowl-
edge to ameliorate environmental risks. Rather than view science and technol-
ogy solely as sources of potential harm (as many risk analysts are inclined to do),
EDITORIAL INTRODUCTION
131
Jamison and Baark highlight how practitioners in these fields are working to
bring about a new phase of environmental improvement. Innovative organisa-
tional combinations involving government with corporate and non-governmen-
tal partners are tapping a growing interest in cleaner and more energy-efficient
production technologies and this is catalysing a process that some commentators
have labelled ‘ecological modernisation’. Ecological modernisation is not
taking the same form in all countries, but is instead being shaped by individual
nations’ idiosyncratic policymaking styles.
Jamison and Baark’s study of ecological modernisation examines the expe-
riences of Sweden and Denmark. The authors demonstrate how, due to distinct
historical forces, natural endowments, and institutional structures, these two
countries bring very different propensities to the task of environmental reform.
Accordingly, Sweden and Denmark – nations that are remarkably alike in many
ways – are adopting paths toward ecological modernisation that are quite
different. As an extension of their country’s imperialistic legacy and bureau-
cratic disposition, the Swedes are pursuing ecological modernisation largely as
a paternalistic affair involving government planners and the managerial leader-
ship of the country’s large industrial firms. In contrast, Jamison and Baark report,
the Danes are giving their version of ecological modernisation a more pragmatic
and decentralised orientation, one that finds its origins in long-established
national traditions and institutions. The chief lesson of this cross-national
examination is that even in seemingly similar countries we find sharp cultural
differences in the policy styles used to engage with risk issues.
In a paper entitled ‘Industrial Food for Thought’ Barbara Adam offers a
comparative analysis of risk that departs methodologically from the four
previous papers in this collection. Rather than focus on how people differently
perceive and respond to risk across space, she illustrates the temporal distribu-
tion of uncertainty. Adam begins her contribution with a description of the
complex global system that puts food on our plates. At issue is the intensification
of production that results in the creation of novel risks. As presently constituted,
individual farmers, due to their weakness relative to the large, multinational
companies that control product flows, are especially vulnerable to market
fluctuatons. Adam also describes some of the essential features of the insurance
and futures trading programmes in place to apportion risk arising from the
vagaries of weather. She highlights the multifarious strategies available on the
production side to externalise risk by shifting the costs of uncertainty onto the
weakest elements in the chain.
Adam then focuses her attention on some of the new hazards that consumers
confront when trying to negotiate the aisles of conventional supermarkets.
Echoing Uwe Poerksen’s (1995) definition of a plastic term, Adam relates how
the once familiar descriptor ‘freshness’ has come to contain, at least as a
technical term used by food producers and regulators, a variety of ambiguities.
MAURIE J. COHEN
132
While the word previously referred to a food item that farmers had harvested in
the relatively recent past, the agricultural system now regularly uses it to label
foodstuffs that stretch this connotation substantially. For purposes of controlling
maturation and extending shelf life, distributors now subject many foods to
atmospheric ripening, chemical treatment, and irradiation. They then regularly
market these products to consumers as ‘fresh’ because government regulatory
bodies do not consider these techniques to be significant deviations from
‘normal’ conditions. The result is that fruits and vegetables that have been stored
for prolonged periods or exposed to various unnatural processes turn up on
supermarket shelves as ‘fresh’. This elongation of the timespan during which
products are deemed ‘fresh’ is no doubt profitable for producers, but creates new
food safety problems that consumers must confront without the benefit of full
disclosure. Such information deficiencies make it impossible for consumers to
act as the rational actors that many influential social science theories demand.
Adam concludes her contribution with some speculations on the importance of
the temporal analysis of risk for social theory and on contemporary concerns
about the need to develop more contextualised understandings of knowledge.
Bronislaw Szerszynski examines the various strategies at play when laypeople
speak in the language of risk and offers us a linguistic comparison between
conventionally perceived and actually intended forms of speech. Risk research-
ers typically interpret public affirmations of trust as unproblematic expressions
of confidence in the ability of industrial managers and government officials to
execute their responsibilities effectively. The author suggests that this interpre-
tation fails to capture the complex ways that laypeople use language. After first
relating his approach to more familiar perspectives within the social theory of
risk (namely reflexive modernisation) and the sociology of scientific knowl-
edge, Szerszynski argues that individuals exposed to risky technologies may in
fact be striving to satisfy a number of subtle objectives.
More specifically, this contribution suggests that public and private dis-
course about risk, by drawing on the speaker’s relationality with other actors and
institutions, may be motivated by performative goals intended to bring about
certain social effects. Szerszynski is claiming that when laypeople express
confidence in, say, the operators of a local industrial facility, one thing they may
be seeking to do is to bind the relevant corporate managers into a relationship of
trust. In other words, through a specific speech act, individuals may be attempt-
ing to transform social identities and relationships. Interestingly, it does not even
matter whether the ‘entrusted’ party is present to hear the appeal. The layperson
living in a hazardous environment over which she has little control might be
using speech performatively in much the same way as a religious devotee relies
upon prayer.
Brent Marshall, in his offering entitled ‘Globalisation, Environmental Deg-
radation, and Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society’, returns us to the spatial and geopo-
EDITORIAL INTRODUCTION
133
litical spheres of comparative analysis. He assimilates expansive literatures
pertaining to international political economy and environmental sociology and
points to how these two fields can be integrated for mutual benefit. In particular,
Marshall describes how globalisation theorists fail to address environmental
degradation as more than an add-on theme – much like a conventional engineer
might screw a piece of pollution control technology onto an industrial system –
rather than a fully-integrated area of import for theory-building. He then
proceeds to identify some key issues for incorporating the way in which global
capitalism, as well as neo-liberalism more generally, are undermining the
integrity of ecological systems, especially in peripheral regions.
Marshall’s early discussion provides the scaffolding for an interrogation of
Ulrich Beck’s risk society thesis. He casts doubt on the generalisability of this
theoretical approach because of the way it is historically and spatially situated in
a northern European context. The breadth of these nations’ social welfare
systems has indeed meant that politics predicated upon material needs has
pushed inequality to the margins. However, the situation is very different in other
countries – most prominently the United States – and Marshall argues that risk
society theory has quite limited applicability in nation-states lacking a standing
commitment to wealth redistribution. Marshall also draws attention to the fact
that Beck’s exclusive focus on so-called ‘mega-hazards’ fails to acknowledge
how micro-level technological hazards arising from localised sources of con-
tamination compound existing class divisions at both national and international
levels of analysis. Accordingly, he contends that conventional expositions of the
risk society hypothesis remain fixed in an increasingly outmoded understanding
of the nation-state and that we must reorient our theoretical gaze to account for
social changes at the global level.
To meld the largely theoretical perspectives that comprise this issue with
concrete events from the world of environmental politics Robin Grove-White
provides us in the concluding contribution with a personal memoir. Drawing on
a host of recent episodes – among them the public uproar over the disposal of the
Brent Spar oil platform, the British bovine-spongiform encephalopathy crisis,
and the public unease about genetically-modified foods – he describes the
malleability of scientific understanding and the way in which ‘scientific facts’
are routinely constructed to conform to prevailing political prerogatives. Con-
temporary political institutions are motivated by a need to wrap their decisions
in the garments of purportedly ‘sound science’, efforts that in the end undermine
their own authority and tarnish the legitimacy of science. As ‘official’ and public
commitments grow increasingly divergent, the politics of environmental knowl-
edge grows ever more hostile and intractable. Grove-White’s absorbing reflec-
tions remind us that more sociologically-informed perspectives for viewing
environmental issues are indispensable as we negotiate our way toward a future
that lacks the reassuring markers of modernity.
MAURIE J. COHEN
134
NOTE
Several of the authors represented in this special issue originally prepared their papers for
presentation at a workshop entitled ‘Risk in the Modern Age’ held at the Oxford Centre
for the Environment, Ethics, and Society at Mansfield College, Oxford during the summer
of 1997. In addition to the contributors I would like to acknowledge the other participants
in this event: John Adams, Michael Bell, Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, Lee Clarke,
Steven Couch, Michael Edelstein, Klaus Eder, William Freudenburg, Duane Gill, Bob
Gramling, Maarten Hajer, Alan Irwin, Klaus Japp, Wolfgang Krohn, Rolf Lidskog,
Arthur Mol, Steven Picou, Jerry Ravetz, Ortwin Renn, Peter Simmons, Neil Summerton,
and Brian Wynne. I remain indebted to Anne Maclachlan for her grace in handling many
of the event’s organisational details. The Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach
Foundation, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the Anglo-German Fund for the Study of
Industrial Society, and the British Academy provided the funding for the workshop.
REFERENCES
Beck, Ulrich 1992. The Risk Society: Toward a New Modernity. London: Sage.
Giddens, Anthony 1990. The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Joppke, Christian 1993. Mobilizing Against Nuclear Energy: A Comparison of Germany
and the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kasperson, Roger E. and Jeanne E. Kasperson 1987. Nuclear Risk Analysis in Compara-
tive Perspective: The Impacts of Large-Scale Nuclear Risk Asessment in Five
Countries. London: Allen and Unwin.
Jasanoff, Sheila 1986. Risk Management and Political Culture: A Comparative Study of
Science in the Policy Context. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Lundqvist, Lennart 1980. The Hare and the Tortoise: Clean Air Policies in the United
States and Sweden. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Nelkin, Dorothy 1980. The Atom Besieged: Extraparlimentary Dissent in France and
Germany. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Poerksen, Uwe 1995. Plastic Worlds: The Tyranny of a Modular Language, trans. Jutta
Mason and David Cayley. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania University Press.
Vogel, David 1986. National Styles of Regulation: Environmental Policy in Great Britain
and the United States. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Article
This article examines the relationship between trust and risk in one of the centres of the global chemical industry, Ludwigshafen in Germany. A single industry town associated for 150 years with BASF, the dominant outlook among those living or working there has been one of trust, confidence and pride in the corporation which has ‘put the town on the map’. Yet beneath the surface, subtle shifts in public assumptions and expectations about BASF and the town's chemical industry are now occurring. We describe the parameters of public reflection about trust and risk, analyse how characterizations of BASF are changing, and consider how far recent writing on trust helps in understanding its salience in this particular industrial town.
Article
It is now widely acknowledged that social theorists can make an important contribution to our understanding of environmental risk. There is however a danger that the current ascendancy of social theory will encourage a tendency to assimilate issues around environmental risk to those at stake in entrenched debates between realist and constructivist social theorists. I begin by citing a recent example of this trend, before going on to argue that framing the issues in terms of a monism/pluralism dichotomy would make for a more informative analysis. Noting that realists and constructivists can make common cause against risk monism, I turn, in the second half of the paper, to setting out a positive case for risk pluralism. Citing some fictional examples of risk behaviour, I show how different individuals might rationally adopt different perspectives on the same risk. I conclude by exploring some implications of the truth of risk pluralism for two current approaches to environmental decision-making (which I term, respectively, the 'teleological-pluralistic' approach, and the 'economic-monistic' approach). I argue that the importance of risk pluralism lies in its capacity to highlight the shortcomings of the latter approach.
Nuclear Risk Analysis in Comparative Perspective: The Impacts of Large-Scale Nuclear Risk Asessment in Five Countries
  • Roger E Kasperson
  • Jeanne E Kasperson
Kasperson, Roger E. and Jeanne E. Kasperson 1987. Nuclear Risk Analysis in Comparative Perspective: The Impacts of Large-Scale Nuclear Risk Asessment in Five Countries. London: Allen and Unwin.
Risk Management and Political Culture: A Comparative Study of Science in the Policy Context
  • Sheila Jasanoff
Jasanoff, Sheila 1986. Risk Management and Political Culture: A Comparative Study of Science in the Policy Context. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Plastic Worlds: The Tyranny of a Modular Language
  • Uwe Poerksen
Poerksen, Uwe 1995. Plastic Worlds: The Tyranny of a Modular Language, trans. Jutta Mason and David Cayley. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania University Press.